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The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): In December 1999, we published our national strategy on rough sleeping "Coming in from the Cold" and announced that the number of people sleeping rough across England had already fallen by more than 10 per cent. between June 1998 and June 1999. More recent street counts have shown that the number of people sleeping rough in central London has fallen by one third over the past year.
Mr. Beard: I thank the Minister for that welcome reply. What support services are being provided to encourage former rough sleepers to stay in permanent accommodation rather than take to the streets again?
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): As Ms Casey has indicated that the solution to the problem of rough sleeping in Westminster is at the heart of the problem in central London, will the Minister pay tribute to the network of voluntary agencies, the police and the local authority that Ms Casey has inherited?
Ms Armstrong: I am delighted to pay tribute to the work that is going on in Westminster and the co-operation between the local authority, the Government, the police and the voluntary sector. Significant changes are taking place, and the number of rough sleepers in Westminster is an important part of tackling the problem overall. I am encouraged that co-operative working across the board and new ways of working are already showing real results.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the welcome progress being made in reducing the number of rough sleepers. However, will she consider the effect of the case of my constituent Ruth Wyner, who has been jailed under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, on charity workers and others in the homelessness sector who might be afraid of a similar occurrence?
Ms Armstrong: I know that there has been much concern about that case, although I cannot comment on it because it is under appeal. I can reassure my hon. Friend and the charity world that the case should have no impact on how people work. Those who run hostels or work with rough sleepers have a clear responsibility to take every care with the most vulnerable people, including those who are drug-dependent. However, they should have nothing to do with drug dealing, which is, and has long been, illegal. For many years, charities have ensured that they worked with that fact. My understanding is that the case makes no difference--
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Does the Minister agree that rough sleepers should be directly involved in designing schemes intended to help them? Given her answer about empty homes, is she aware that there are across the country--including in central London--significantly more empty homes than registered homeless households? Would she be prepared to consider extending the powers of local councils to allow them to take tougher action to bring those empty homes back into use?
Ms Armstrong: I expect rough sleepers and the homeless to be involved in developing any strategy. Outside London, local authorities are in control of strategy. I remind the hon. Gentleman that homelessness is rarely simply a matter of not having housing. Our responsibility is to ensure that we tackle coherently across
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The eight regional assemblies and chambers are already starting to identify social exclusion issues in their regions and will have an important role in setting the regional context for tackling social exclusion. That will include, for instance, neighbourhood renewal, on which the Government's social exclusion unit is in the process of drawing up a national strategy.
Ms Blears: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Now that we are all comfortable with the fact that there are real disparities in economic performance between and within regions, can she confirm that she will encourage regional development agencies and assemblies to develop policies to tackle unemployment, skill shortages and all the issues that contribute to social exclusion? In particular, will she encourage the sharing of regional good practice on social exclusion, such as the unique Salford school for social entrepreneurs, which is setting up community businesses and giving people real opportunities for the future?
Ms Armstrong: I am delighted to hear of the work taking place in Salford to tackle social exclusion. I shall certainly encourage regional assemblies and RDAs to pick up good practice and spread it. They have a prime responsibility to tackle disadvantage wherever it arises, and to develop and implement strategies to do that. Unless they take account of social exclusion, they will not succeed in uplifting the economic performance of their regions.
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Can the Minister explain why she thinks that the regional assemblies, whose administrative costs alone will be more than £205 million a year, are better placed to tackle the worsening problems of social exclusion than elected and accountable local authorities? Her own Department was condemned by the Government's performance and innovation unit for failing to deliver co-ordination between Departments, for poor cross-cutting and for making unnecessary obstacles in dealing with social exclusion. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that, despite 100 spin-doctored policy announcements about tackling poverty and social exclusion, the problems continue unabated. How long will it be before the Secretary of State loses responsibility for this flagship issue too? The Secretary of State is all talk and no trousers and has all but lost his briefs.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the regional assemblies and the RDAs are already showing that they are better able to tackle social exclusion and economic problems in their areas? Does she think that, in the long run, they should also be given powers to deal with the problems of education and housing in the regions? They will ensure that we have better answers for local problems and better use of Government resources.
Ms Armstrong: I agree with my hon. Friend that regional assemblies and RDAs already make a significant impact in the regions. It is a pity that the Opposition have not picked up that fact. Perhaps when they do so, we shall see another U-turn. The work that is being done in the regions will be developed over time. We shall work with people in the regions to make sure that the agencies work on what they want locally in a way that produces a real difference.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): No firm date has been fixed for de-trunking the A10. However, the hon. Gentleman may be pleased to know that, during the next financial year, the Highways Agency proposes to install traffic lights at the junction with Butt lane, which I know has been of concern to him.
Mr. Paice: I thank the Minister for his answer and for the courtesy of contacting me to find out what I wanted to raise. However, that does not excuse the fact that, when the Government announced the de-trunking of the A10, they abandoned the two bypasses that were planned north of Cambridge going towards Ely--the Landbeach and the Stretham bypasses. Will he assure me and my constituents that, when the A10 is de-trunked, Cambridgeshire county council--the highways authority--will have the necessary resources to carry out the improvements that his Government abandoned?
Mr. Mullin: I find that extraordinary. The Tories cut road maintenance by 9 per cent. over four years; we have increased it by 10 per cent. In the short time that we have been in office, we have reversed the £200 million cut in local authority maintenance funding. After de-trunking, there will be a transitional funding arrangement; in due
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My hon. Friend will know that the A10 is the road from London to my constituency. We also anticipate the de-trunking of the A17, leaving only one trunk road--the A47--through North-West Norfolk. Does he therefore understand that my constituents are impatient for work to be done on improving the last remaining trunk road? They want not only work to be carried out in studies, but to see some progress in dualling the A47.
Mr. Mullin: I share my hon. Friend's concern, but he will know that we have a long backlog of repairs and new projects on which to engage. We have already started 37 of them, including 19 bypasses, and no doubt we shall get round to the one in his constituency in due course.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Why will the Minister not answer the question asked by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner)? When will the A47 be dualled? The Government have cut the roads programme and that has left the hon. Gentleman complaining from the Back Benches. When will we have another roads review to reflect other issues, such as the U-turn in the Government's policy for 44-tonne lorries? How is transport better integrated by off-loading trunk roads on to local authorities? Unless all the bypass programmes are restored, how can the Minister possibly come to the House with a policy that will allow 44-tonne lorries to trundle through our towns and villages?
Mr. Mullin: One thing that we shall certainly not return to is the wish list that the previous Government drew up. It did not produce any new roads; it just produced a lot of talk. We have a programme that covers 37 new roads, including 19 bypasses. We always listen with interest to the demands from those on the Tory Front Bench for more public spending. At least, my hon. Friends on the Back Benches have the advantage of being consistent, which is more than can be said for Tory Members.